The transfer at the Taipei airport was as smooth as silk. Off we had loaded into an expansive concourse, new, clean and quiet. The softly lighted halls seemed to absorb the 350 passengers and we all breathed the relief of a little more personal space.
I thought many times during the 13 hour transpacific flight, how amazing people are, to be able to adapt to the constraints of the silver cylinder of an aircraft. We sit, eat, sleep, and share the air with people not of our choosing. Our bodies are cramped and uncomfortable. We all have visions of the germs circulating merrily in the air, and yet we are civilized, courteous and even friendly. We differ to one another in the line up for the bathroom. We make pleasant conversation and share stories with those awake in the never ending night. No one shouts of their impatience although we would all love to.
So, the airport seems a wonderful gift of space and light. I walk fast, stretching my legs which have been twisted like pretzels for too many hours. Quickly I am able to find the right desk to get a new boarding pass for the next flight to Ho Chi Minh City. The layover is a little over an hour so I scurry to the washroom. Oh boy....a big stall for a big sit, a sink for a little bath, a place to shed my fleece top and put on cotton, and ditch the socks. I feel lighter, cleaner, and certain that the next four hours in transit will be a piece of cake compared to the eighteen hours that have passed since I left my hotel in Vancouver.
Beyond yet another security check, the now familiar scene is developing in the departure lounge for Flight 395. Well before the seat rows are called for boarding, the passengers crush toward the gate, pressing themselves, their baggage, their mothers in wheelchairs, and their children together in some mysterious Eastern swarming ritual that we Westerners do not comprehend. Everyone is giving everyone else instructions, speculating on whether they have chosen the right general area in which to start inching forward in one buzzing, undulating mass.
I watch with pure delight...I am at last in Asia and in a scant four hours I will be at the Continental Hotel in Saigon. This journey of the heart is about to begin.
As we board the plane and everyone begins to settle I realize that there are about twelve children between the ages of a few months and six years in our section of the aircraft. In Canada, this would have horrified me, but here, my delight is not diminished for these are oriental children, adaptable and well behaved, experienced little travelers.
After an hours delay on the ground we adults and even some of the adaptable children are getting a little antsy, but then we are chugging down the runway and climbing to cruising altitude. The seatbelt sign had not been turned off, before an appeal for a medic comes over the speaker. I glance up to see a whole row of excited people, gesturing, gabbling and shouting orders. A young man is bleeding profusely into anything and everything that his fellow passengers could find. I can see from the movements that it is a nose bleed and within minutes the flight attendants have staunched the flow and cleaned him up....but not before one of the moms leaves her seat to lift her two year old up over the heads of the on-lookers so that he too could see what was happening!
I am horrified for a second, until I realize, of course I am in Asia.
Breakfast is a hasty affair, the flight crew's preparation being interrupted by the nosebleed. But we are fed and the post breakfast activity begins, the headsets come out, as do the laptops, the toys, the books. Kids begin to scamper in the aisles. At least three generations of one family group seem to be occupying the two middle rows surrounding the nose bleed victim. They are all up and about, leaning over the seats to the row behind, kids and adults alike. They must access the overhead bins eight times. The bags come down, some precious item found and back up they go.
As I enjoy this circus of activity the plane begins to bounce. I fasten my seatbelt in anticipation of the sign being illuminated. Sure enough, the turbulence gets serious and the sign blinks on. We rattle, we shake, we change altitude and still the family is out of their seats. The kids are wobbling all over the aisles; the adults are kneeling in their seats. The pilot comes on to suggest that the flight crew take their seats. This is serious bouncing going on here over the South China Sea, but the family is blithely having its party. "Where is the crew?" I wonder. "Someone is going to get hurt." As my fears mount the little boy across the aisle from me begins to vomit into a plastic bag, which his mother holds nonchalantly at his mouth. And amidst this chaos and despite my own terror, I smile. I am in Asia.
We all survive the bouncing, the vomiting and another nose bleed on the descent. The usual announcements proclaim that we are welcome to Ho Chi Minh City and are to remain in our seats until we are at a complete stop at the terminal. But of course everyone is up and grabbing their bags, as a very tiny flight attendant, calls without amplification, "please stay seated," demonstrating with flapping arms. The emergency ground crew fights its way down the aisle against the tide of people to aid the guy with the nosebleed. As the nurse squats to take the victim's pulse, people crawl over her to get out of the plane. We are in Asia.
The new customs hall in HCMC is vast, at least 40 wickets. I am entrant number four at kiosk 15. I slide by the customs agent, even eliciting a smile as he looks at my passport photo twice, to assure himself that the surprised monkey face is indeed that of the woman before him. One floor below, there are six enormous carousels for luggage. Flight 395's bags and Vietnamese boxes are sliding along already, yet it is still one hour before I emerge into the chaos beyond the doors. In the extreme heat and humidity, hundreds of anxious relatives are pressed up to the railing. I spy amidst the throng my name elevated on a long pole. I make eye contact with Bhong, whom Bruce has hired as my driver. We scramble across three lanes of cars, buses, taxis, to his illegally parked vehicle and we inch our way into the mayhem of Saigon traffic.
"Is Madam hungry?" Bhong asks. "No, but very thirsty", is my reply. Bhong veers right, pulls up to the curb and orders me to stay put. "I get Madam some water" he suggests, pointing at a market. He has waited at the airport for me for two hours, is driving through traffic that seems incredibly fast moving and without rules. He is struggling to make me feel welcome and at ease. I smile.....I am in Asia.
Published on 1/24/12